Islam is one of the world’s great monotheistic religions. It was founded during the seventh century by Muhammad ibn Abdullah (570-632), revered by his followers as a prophet and messenger of God. Its followers are called Muslims, “those who submit,” that is, to the will of God or Allah. The root meaning of the word “Islam” in Arabic (اسلام) is submission.
The mystical element within Islam is Sufism. The essential feature of Sufism is exactly the same as Islam: surrender. And so, we need to define what is meant by the parallel terms surrender and submission in the eyes of Sufis.
But first, there is no such thing as a generic “Sufi.” There are many Sufi orders, and adherents follow lineages, similar to Catholic monastics belonging to Benedictine, Dominican, or Franciscan orders, which are often named after their founder. Each Sufi lineage stresses different practices, but they uniformly emphasize submission to God.
All Sufi orders belong to Islam, although orthodox Islam doesn’t always look with favor upon Sufism. We won’t discuss this issue in the present essay, but we will turn our attention to the concept and practice of surrender.
When we encounter people and situations in our day-to-day lives, we view some as favorable and some as unfavorable. A surrendered Sufi doesn’t have this divisive mindset: all is seen as God or Allah to them.
We look upon certain people as vexatious and certain circumstances in our lives as obstacles to be overcome. A true Sufi who has submitted themselves to God has neither enemies nor obstacles: they view all things as inherently infused with God, as originating from God, as leading to God. A mystical translation of the great Islamic Pillar of Faith, the Shahadah (“La ilaha ill’Allah”) could be rendered as, “There is nothing but God.”
This concept is hard for us to imagine. A Sufi mystic looks at life not as we view life, but from the other side of the fence, as it were. They strive to overcome their nafs, or ego, and this requires a radical inner shift brought about by reorienting their perspective from their self entirely to God. They drain their self of its noisy demands, and they forfeit their personal wants and desires, and as a result they attain instant peace. They merge their will with God’s will, so that – poof! – their ego vanishes, and only one Will remains.
As Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166), the Sufi whom the Qadiri Sufi Order is named, observed, “In reality there is no doer of anything excepting God.”* To an illumined Sufi, this is no theory. They come to live these words through their personal experience. Having relinquished their self-will, a Sufi has unshakable trust in God, and they are forever unruffled by the clatter of this world. They feel an enduring inner calmness, and they maintain equanimity under all circumstances. They are never perturbed, anxious, worried, or fearful. They have realized the essence of Sufism by abiding continuously in a state of complete surrender at all times. We can be so inspired in our own spiritual lives by ingraining in ourselves deep-seated attitudes of trust, surrender, and submission that guide us throughout every moment of life.
*Raymond Van Over (ed.), Eastern Mysticism, Volume One: The Near East and India (New York: New American Library, 1977), p. 382.